Long land of earthquakes

I awakened when dreamland gave way beneath

my bed.

A blind column of ash tottered into the middle

of the night,

and I ask you: am I dead?

Hold my hand in this rupture of the planet

while the scar of the purple sky becomes a star.

Ah!, but I remember, where are they? Where are they?

Why does the earth boil, gorging on death?

Earthquake, from Canto General by Pablo Neruda.

When Pablo Neruda published this work in his tenth collection of poems, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded was still a decade away.  On May 22, 1960 a 9.5-magnitude quake hit the coast of southern Chile, followed by a tsunami with waves over 80 feet tall.

On Sunday Chileans marked the first anniversary of another earthquake on February 27, 2010, not as catastrophic as the 1960 disaster but still severe enough to rank among the top five earthquakes since 1900. It measured 8.8 on the Richter scale, followed by a tsunami that left 524 dead, another 31 missing and hundreds of thousands homeless and caused an estimated $30 billion in damage.

Last week the Pinera government published a report on reconstruction http://www.gob.cl/especiales/balance-de-reconstruccion-a-un-ano-del-terremoto/. And the aftershocks keep coming, with two tremors measuring 6.0 and 5.1 hitting southern Chile on Sunday.  Two weeks earlier a 6.8 tremor struck, prompting authorities to issue a tsunami alert and evacuate around 5,000 people from beaches.

And some more books on the mine rescue

There have been four or five books published in Spanish on the San Jose mine rescue, and one in English by a long-time Chile resident, Jonathan Franklin, who came through London this past week for the UK launch of his book, The 33 (entitled 33 Men in the US).

He said he gained his enviable behind-the-scenes access to the rescue efforts when he happened to run into an acquaintance at the Santiago zoo, who gave him the rescue team’s cell phone numbers. Upon arrival at the mine site, he filled out a form for a rescue team credential, stating that he was a writer, obtained a rescue team credential and for most of the period had a front row view of the operation. And he was responsible for obtaining the sunglasses worn by the miners as they emerged from the mine: Franklin happened to know an Oakley representative and sent an e mail suggesting the company ship 35 pairs of sunglasses to Chile—one for each miner and two spares.

He said most of the miners are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is hardly surprising. The one exception is Jose Henriquez, the evangelical preacher who led his trapped colleagues in prayer. Henriquez did a speaking tour of UK churches this month before joining 23 of the miners and their families on a trip to Israel.

I asked Franklin if there had been any serious safety improvements at Chilean mines since the accident.  He said that while the government has tripled its mine safety budget, such efforts are undermined by high world copper prices, which encourage illegal mining operations.

According to Chile’s Servicio Nacional de Geologia y Mineria, 44 mine workers were killed last year, up from 35 in 2009 and 43 the previous year.  The department’s accident chart lists two accidents in January of this year and two more in February, with four mine workers killed:(http://www.sernageomin.cl/index.php?.option=com_content&task=view&id=144&Itemid=209

Death of a Chilean President (2)

Firefighters remove the body of Salvador Allende from the presidential palace on September 11, 1973

There is another presidential death under investigation in Chile, and this one is more belated and possibly more contentious that the inquiry into the death of Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-70).  Last month a Chilean judge opened the first official investigation into the death of Salvador Allende, a Socialist whose government was overthrown in a violent military coup on September 11, 1973.

Allende was found dead in the La Moneda presidential palace as troops stormed the building, his body carried out by Chilean firefighters.  An autopsy suggested he had killed himself, and his remains were quickly buried in a family plot in the Vina del Mar cemetery.  In 1990 an elected civilian government took office, and Allende was finally given a state funeral and reburied in Santiago’s Cementerio General.

Some of his supporters believe Allende was killed by soldiers, while others who were in La Moneda that day say he committed suicide with a submachine gun Fidel Castro had given him.  The one witness who says he actually saw Allende die, Dr. Patricio Guijon, was arrested along with other officials and sent to a prison camp on an island in the Strait of Magellan. Guijon has never changed his story and over the years Allende’s widow and surviving daughter came to accept this account as well.

More recently a Chilean journalist, Camilo Taufic, offered another version of events:  Allende shot himself with a pistol and only wounded himself, then asked one of his bodyguards to deliver the coup de grace. According to Taufic, the army general leading the attack on the presidential palace rearranged the scene to create the impression Allende had used the submachine gun on himself.

The investigation into Allende’s death is part of a broader judicial inquiry into 726 human rights-related crimes in which no legal action has been taken by the victims’ families.   The team of specialists from Chile’s Servicio Medico Legal includes two thanatologists, an anthropologists and a forensic orthodontist.

Dr. Oscar Soto Guzman, a physician who was also with Allende in the presidential palace the day of the coup, backs Guijon’s testimony but asks why there has been no investigation before now.  Not even Allende’s own Socialist Party, part of the political coalition governing Chile for 20 years, had sought an inquiry into his death.

Death of a Chilean President (1)

This week’s publication of a Wikileaks cable dealing with Chile may have helped speed up a judicial investigation into the death of former president Eduardo Frei Montalva.  This investigation has been going on since 2002, but not until  December 2009 were any indictments issued.

Some background:  Frei was a Christian Democrat whose 1964-1970 administration preceded the ill-fated government of Salvador Allende, overthrown in a military coup in 1973. Frei was a prominent critic of the military regime led by General Augusto Pinochet. In late 1981 the former president, age 71 and in general good health, checked into Santiago’s Clinica Santa Maria for a hernia operation. The surgery seemed to go well, and the patient was discharged, only to return to the hospital where he died of acute septicemia on January 22, 1982. Two decades later his family sought a judicial inquiry when they learned of an unusual autopsy—which they did not authorize—performed on Frei less than an hour after his death.  The U.S. Embassy cable, written and sent after the judge charged six people with his murder in December 2009, describes the post mortem scene:

Less than one hour after his death, doctors from the
Catholic University Pathological Anatomy Department came to Clinica
Santa Maria and performed an autopsy of Frei without the family’s
consent. The highly unusual autopsy was allegedly performed in the
hospital room where Frei died, using a ladder to hang the body
upside down in order to drain bodily fluids into the bathtub.
Some organs, and in particular those whose chemical compositions
might indicate poisoning, were removed and destroyed, and the body
was embalmed.

The investigating judge ordered Frei’s body exhumed and tested for toxins, and charged six people, including the late president’s driver (who confessed to working for the Pinochet regime’s security forces), another security agent, the doctor who performed the surgery, the doctor who performed the autopsy, a pathologist and another doctor with ties to the security forces who was present during the post mortem. But the timing of the indictments, just a few days before a presidential election, raised a few eyebrows. Frei’s son Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle,  who had been served as Chile’s president from 1994-2000, was running against Sebastian Pinera, and some of the latter candidate’s supporters suspected the judge of trying to generate sympathy for the younger Frei.  The U. S. Embassy cable questioned whether any national consensus on the death would ever be reached:

Given the extremely long
time since Frei’s death and the destruction of some key organs,
forensic science may not be able to provide definitive evidence
whether Frei was murdered. Chile’s tragic recent history continues
to divide its people, and the death of this emblematic president
seems destined to be yet one more area in which the full truth may
never be known.

But right after the cable became public, Pinera announced his government would lend its support to the independent judicial process, offering the Interior Ministry’s resources to the investigating judge.  This case, and other suspicious deaths “must not remain in the shadows, that once and for all, the circumstances and those responsible should be made clear and that those who have responsibility assume the consequences,” he said.

Frei’s daughter Carmen expressed skepticism, noting that the Pinera government had cut back the Interior Ministry’s human rights department.  She called on authorities to turn over any files Chilean army intelligence had compiled on her father to the investigating judge.